ARN: Tell us the Ardent story to date.
Miles: I'll begin with a historical perspective because it is relevant to how we do business today.
We started this subsidiary in October 1991 as V-Mark Software, the third international subsidiary of the Boston-based company. As a start-up company, we could afford very few staff. So I was one of five staff charged with effectively bringing the only product that V-Mark had at that time, Universe, to the Australia-New Zealand market. In subsequent months, we started to sell into Asia. When there is only one in sales in such a large geographic region, you have to look at how you can best leverage what you have. The then managing director and I made a decision that the way to sell in such a large region is via a reselling channel.
That is how our channel strategy was formed. Primarily, the channel involved application software developers who may well have had their applications running on competitive software, but there were also a number of hardware vendors and system integrators who we sought to assist us with our selling efforts.
There are not many women dealing with the IT channel at your level. Do you wish to comment?
I would go further than that. There are not many women at my level of sales in the IT industry generally. Going to many industry events as I've done, my catch phrase used to be "I am the token female", but I would guarantee at least 80 per cent of the attendees would be male. And it is true of almost every function where you would expect middle-to-senior management to be in attendance.
What do you typically do for channel partners in a sale?
Take the Datastage extraction and transformation tool as an example, because it's our newest product and attracts a different type of channel partner.
We typically get our leads as a result of advertising, the Web or word of mouth and I have specialist Datastage salespeople generating leads in this product only. It is up to the salesperson to qualify the prospect as to where they are in the sales cycle. That can range from "I know I want a warehouse", the longest cycle, to "I know about extraction tools, I'd like to have a look at yours". We (sales and pre-sales people) will go in and sit down with the new prospect or existing Universe customer and work out what Datastage can do for them. This is part of the qualifying process, and we wouldn't hand it over to a channel partner until we had some indication ourselves about what the process would be for the sale.
Once we have established what part of the sales cycle we're in, we explain to the prospect the method we use to sell our software, and the fact that we work through authorised channel partners. At that point, we would attempt to introduce one of those channel partners to the site. Outside Sydney and Melbourne, we send the lead straight to the reseller and follow up from head office.
We've found that end users like to know the authors are at least represented in the same place they are as a backup to the partner for support and ongoing maintenance.
What do you do for your channel partners to help them close sales?
Over the years we have taken on additional products, which have required different skill sets. However we have maintained the same reseller strategy, which, despite its difficulties - anyone who has been involved in the channel for any length of time will tell you about channel conflict - has worked for us. Sometimes this has inclu-ded going out and selling those new concepts, firstly to our partners, software or hardware, as we are doing today with our data warehousing tool, Datastage. You have to convince the partner of the technology first. In tandem with the partner, we will then go to a prospective user to discuss what that technology will do for that user. This has applied to Universe, networking software, middleware and all products we've introduced.
As we've grown, and the various technologies we offer have grown with us, we've taken the same approach. This has been to ensure the channel can see the benefits, and that itself will lead to sales, irrespective of the degree of assistance we provide at the end-user level.
The strategy is a dual function then, selling the benefits to the end user and using the process to train the channel partner?
There is nothing that will entice the channel to you faster than the potential of a sale. We have, in many instances, almost delivered a piece of business to a channel partner. I've personally found that you have a far more loyal channel when they know that a) they can rely on you and b) you will never do anything that in any way counteracts their interest. So I suppose it's a question of commitment to that channel, even when it becomes difficult such as when competing channel partners believe they have just as good a chance at the business, when in reality only one or two have a chance.
What would you want to say to your channel?
Some very large corporate clients will not deal with an organisation that appears to be of a certain size or status. If, ultimately, a large customer won't deal with the reseller that put in all the work, either from a lead we provided or one it generated itself, I may say to the reseller that Ardent will have to take the order. This goes against my grain because of the way we work with our partners, but the resellers know that Ardent will never do them out of their margin.
There have been many occasions where we have been pushed to abandon the reseller model. It is something I have seen a lot of organisations who claim to work through the channel do. This is a very short-sighted approach because the result is losing the loyalty of the channel. When this has occurred, we have always ensured that the reseller gets their margin. I like to think our resellers can trust us.